3 May 2014 | Ser_Stephen_Seaworth
A by-the-numbers take on a brilliant novel.
When word broke out that James Franco, wannabe wunderkind who has taken to adapting classic American literature to the big screen to, well, mixed results, would be adapting my favorite author's work, I prickled with righteous indignation. I don't care much for Franco and indeed find him to be a jack of all trades but indeed master of none: he is a subpar actor, his writing leaves a LOT to be desired, and his direction feels a little too over-reliant on flashy tics that add an unnecessary layer of pretension to the proceedings. And here he is, adapting the work of the master: Cormac McCarthy.
At first, Franco announced he would be tackling McCarthy's masterpiece, the ultraviolent scalp- hunter saga "Blood Meridian", but after a while, he decided to cut his teeth on a smaller -- but by no means lesser -- work of ol' Cormac's. And this is how he came to deliver "Child of God" onto the masses.
Despite its brevity, "Child of God" is by no means an accessible novel: it's lean, mean and has a soul blacker than night. The novel is just like its protagonist, Lester Ballard, a loner who skulks about the Tennessee backwoods like a dog suffering the early onset of rabies, indulging in varying degrees of vicious activities, from assault to necrophilia to, eventually, murder. Ballard is not your typical protagonist, and yet the way Cormac McCarthy approached him, he was made both revolting and at the same time strangely empathetic, as he managed to submerge the reader into Ballard's festering brain. "A child of God much like yourself" is how McCarthy's opening lines describe Ballard, signifying that the madness and malice that ferments within the man is a seed to be found in any of us. And despite its grim premise, "Child of God" is astoundingly, gut-bustingly funny, like the worst sort of dead-baby joke.
Unfortunately, I feel that Franco has missed the levity, instead emphasizing the straight serial- killer premise. This isn't to say that Franco doesn't hew close to the novel; if anything, he is a little too faithful, even relying on having blocks of text from the novel playing out on the screen. It's an admirable slice of avant-garde, even if I feel that Franco is forgetting the first rule of filmmaking: show, don't tell. Even though McCarthy's prose is magic, Franco should've known (as the Coen Brothers and John Hillcoat knew before him) that McCarthy's words can be translated visually to bring the same harrowing, to-the-bone effect.
That said, Franco does show a great deal of passion for the material. But even beyond the use of McCarthy's words, the most crucial aspect of an adaptation of "Child of God" is the man who will be playing Lester Ballard. And in this film, Ballard is played not by Franco, but by his buddy and frequent collaborator Scott Haze. Whether or not you approve of Haze's performance, you can't say he doesn't go for broke in his portrayal of Ballard. Haze's Ballard is beyond laconic; he speaks in strangled, guttural inarticulations that sound almost caveman-like. I do think that there are times that he lays it on a bit too thick, and I think his drooling, leering presence lacks any of the bizarre charm that made Ballard such a fascinatingly funny character in the book. Haze plays Ballard like a "Deliverance" refugee, and while it isn't bad work on its own, I do feel that Haze is a bit too superficial in his take on one of McCarthy's greatest creations. He makes up for it in intensity, though, gotta give him that.
It also doesn't help that Franco's film has a cheap aesthetic to it, lacking any of the grim Gothic atmosphere of the book. It's my biggest issue with Franco as a director: he has no real concept of effective mise-en-scene, instead opting to point the camera and let things play, cutting an odd times that feel far too arrhythmic to be deliberate. Much like last year's interesting-but- too-shallow "As I Lay Dying", Franco gets the story right but tells it in the most simple, A-to-B- to-C way possible. It's worth the watch for Haze's performance (and also for Tim Blake Nelson, who feels like he should've featured in any and every Cormac McCarthy film before this), but it only serves to prove that we're lucky that we dodged a "Blood Meridian" adaptation by James Franco.